What does it mean to effect real change?

Nilani AnanthamoorthyBy Nilani Ananthamoorthy

As I am finishing the internship with Yukon Human Rights Commission (“the Commission”), I have had the opportunity to reflect on a summer that was so different from the one I envisioned when I learned that I was given the position. In the December 2019, I was looking forward to a summer in the North, working directly with the community in Whitehorse and hopefully effecting positive change. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic worsened and I moved back home for a summer that was inevitably unlike any other.

Initially, I – unlike many others – was relatively unaffected by the pandemic and was able to start the internship within the comfort of my parents’ home. I shifted my focus towards adjusting to this new normal and finding motivation in doing online, remote work. But my “bubble” at home was not impervious to the events that were happening outside of it. As the COVID-19 numbers fluctuated in different areas, I read about how minority groups are especially vulnerable to the financial impacts of the pandemic-related work interruptions.[1] Existing health disparities have widened, and minority communities are also especially vulnerable to the health impacts of COVD-19.[2] At the same time, my family and I watched the news every day as protests broke out all over the world in response to anti-black racism. This sparked many conversations about what it means to be systematically oppressed and what it means to be an ally. The events that have occurred this summer have pushed me to reflect on how we can effect change, and what sort of steps need to be taken to protect and empower vulnerable groups.

This internship has shown me the value of an organization like the Commission in pursuing this cause. The Commission provides legal help for all but as I’ve seen in Board of Adjudication decisions, it is especially important in ensuring access to justice for vulnerable groups. If you go on the Commission’s website, it is a one-stop shop for information on the Yukon Human Rights Act and the human rights complaint process. It provides clear and accessible information on harassment and discrimination and provides relevant resources for those pursuing a complaint. As I discussed in my previous blog post, this is important for ensuring that all have access to justice – not just those with legal knowledge.

I have also reflected on the use of the Yukon Human Rights Act as a tool for effecting positive change in individual lives. Section 1 of the Act outlines its objectives, which includes “to discourage and eliminate discrimination”.[3] Section 24 outlines the possible remedies, which includes ordering the party who discriminated to “stop the discrimination” or “rectify the condition that caused the discrimination”.[4] The Board of Adjudication can also order an individual to pay damages for any financial losses suffered or for “injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect”.[5] It can also order individuals to pay exemplary damages if the discrimination occurred in a malicious way.[6] The Yukon Human Rights Act is not unlike other human rights legislation in Canada, which allow tribunals and boards to order individual monetary remedies as well as tangible behavioural and organizational changes. I saw this frequently in employment discrimination cases, where employers were often told to pay damages, but to also implement anti-discrimination policies and training within their workplaces. When I think about systemic oppression and how existing social structures can oppress certain groups, I see the value in ordering remedies that not only compensate the individual affected, but also seeks to ensure that others will not be affected in the same way.

This has truly been a summer of reflection for me. As I watched the news and saw a world that was rapidly changing, I also experienced changes in my personal life. At the end of the summer, my grandpa passed away after experiencing several months of serious health complications. I remember how proud my grandpa was when I was first accepted into law school – and I remember him telling me that those who work with the law have the power to effect real change. As I prepare for the upcoming semester, I am grateful for my experience with the Commission and for my supervisors. Through this work, I’ve been able to reflect on how the law can effect real change for those who are vulnerable in our society.

[1] Brooklyn Neustaeter, “Visible minority groups more vulnerable to financial impacts of COVID-19: StatCan”, CTV (6 July 2020), online: <www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/visible-minority-groups-more-vulnerable-to-financial-impacts-of-covid-19-statcan-1.5012682>.

[2] Reggie Cecchini, “COVID -19 crisis could increase food insecurity among minority communities: studies”, Global News (19 July 2020), online: <globalnews.ca/news/7190831/coronavirus-food-insecurity-minority-groups/>.

[3] Yukon Human Rights Act, RSY 2002, c 116, art 1.

[4] Ibid, art 24.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

A Summer Spent at the Intersection of Human Rights Issues

Kayla Maria RollandBy Kayla Maria Rolland

This summer, I enjoyed working with the Disability Inclusive Climate Action Program (DICARP), a new initiative and partnership between the Canada Research Chair in Human Rights and the Environment and the McGill Centre for Human Rights & Legal Pluralism.

I spent the summer learning more about issues in climate justice, disability rights, and how these issues intersect. For example, persons with disabilities are more affected by climate change as a result of social, economic, and institutional barriers. Women, children, and minorities with disabilities are particularly impacted. The impacts of climate change on food systems may create food shortages that affect the right to food for persons with disabilities. Issues such as inaccessible transportation may impact the right to housing for persons with disabilities. The right to health for persons with disabilities may be impacted when essential healthcare services are disrupted by climate change. Climate change may also have significant impacts on access to water and employment for persons with disabilities. (1)

In response, those working in the spaces of climate justice and disability rights have argued that states hold legal obligations to protect disability rights in regards to climate change, as a result of instruments such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (2)

DICARP will involve a series of research projects and mobilization activities over the coming years related to this topic. Part of my role with DICARP was researching different activists, legal practitioners, and scholars working at the intersection of climate justice and disability rights from around the world to bring a diverse range of perspectives and experiences to the table. It was interesting to learn about the work currently being done, as well as opportunities to grow awareness. From the perspective of a human rights intern, this was also another opportunity to see the different paths that an interest in human rights may take you.

Another part of my role was helping to prepare for the program’s webinars that will take place this Fall. This included researching best practices for accessible webinars and web content. I learned a tremendous amount, and this was one of the most rewarding parts of my internship as these are skills that I will carry with me going forward, both professionally and personally.

I feel very lucky to have been involved with this partnership in its early stages. One of the benefits of having completed a human rights internship here at McGill is that I get to watch what the program will accomplish in the coming years.

 

(1) For more information, see the recent report “The impact of climate change on the rights of persons with disabilities by the UN OHCHR here: https://ohchr.org/EN/Issues/HRAndClimateChange/Pages/PersonsWithDisabilities.aspx

(2) For further information, see the report “The Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the Context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change” by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, Inclusiva, and the Center for International Environmental Law here: https://www.ciel.org/reports/the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities-in-the-context-of-the-un-framework-convention-on-climate-change-dec-2019/

The Humans in the Housing Crisis

Gemma DingwallBy Gemma Dingwall

Since 1876, the Federal Government has been responsible for housing on Indian reserves. In 2016, 27.4% of people on reserves lived in over-crowded housing[1] and 24.2% of First Nations people lived in a dwelling that was in need of major repairs.[2]

There are several contributing factors to these numbers. Firstly, many reserves are in northern isolated regions, which makes for shorter building seasons and costlier materials. Additionally, Indigenous people are also the fastest growing population in Canada and the available housing has not kept up. Furthermore, housing management can be run by people who are not qualified or have too many competing interests to adequately address the house repairs that are needed. However, one major factor is the consistency in which the Federal Government provides inadequate funding for housing and has ignored this issue for generations.

As high as these numbers may seem, they do not fully capture what the housing crisis looks like for those living in it. What those numbers do not provide is a visual of children sleeping on mattresses in living rooms. It does not paint a picture of twelve people living in a three-bedroom house so that people have to take shifts to sleep. It does not show young families waiting years just to have a place of their own. Nor do the stats really show what the inside of a home in need of major repairs looks like, whether that be leaking pipes, mold, holes in the wall or broken appliances.

The housing crisis has detrimental effects in so many areas. Children facing overcrowding have nowhere to complete their homework. Domestic violence victims have no where safe to go. A lack of privacy can lead to mental illnesses like depression. It also acts as a barrier for those looking to recover from their addictions who have no choice but to live with those who are still consuming. Infectious diseases like COVID-19 which can be spread more easily through overcrowded housing, also pose a serious threat to communities

During my internship with the Department of Justice and Correctional Service (DOJCS) of the Cree Nation, I was exposed to some particular ways in which overcrowding affects the justice system. One current challenge for the Cree Nation is that formerly incarcerated people as well as people who have experienced homelessness and who want to come back and integrate into their community have nowhere to go.

If their families do not want them in the home or there is no room in the home, these individuals have no opportunity to rejoin their community. Moreover, because of overcrowding, there are no alternatives—they cannot simply find another place to live. This problem compounds other issues such as formerly incarcerated people are less likely to follow their probation plan when they are far away from their community and do not have appropriate cultural programming or proper support.

To address this issue, the DOJCS has introduced the Tiny Homes Community Project. To start, three of the nine Cree communities will provide ten Tiny Homes for formerly incarcerated people to stay in while they look for more long-term housing. As Tiny Home tenants, they will receive support from Elders and mental health professionals. Each tenant is also required to participate in programming that will help them become a healthy, contributing member of the community.

My role in this project was to work in a team to draft the rights, responsibilities and protocols for the clients of these Tiny Homes. Again, the housing shortage posed several challenges. The Tiny Homes are meant to serve as transitional housing so the residents can integrate into the community. However, many people in the Cree Nation have to wait several years to be given access to a home of their own. This must be balanced with the high demand for the program, so the Tiny Homes cannot be occupied by the same clients for years. Another issue to consider is the process of expelling someone from the program, which may be necessary when the safety of the staff or other tenants is at risk. The reality is the expelled individual will have very few options on where to go; in some cases, they will have nowhere to go.

Overall, there are so many barriers caused by the housing crisis. It affects health, education, child development, rehabilitation, individual safety, familial relationships and overall community building. I know the Tiny Homes is a great program and will help many people reconnect with their community. Unfortunately, I also know that the housing crisis will continue to limit the number of people it serves and impacts its true potential.

[1] “The housing conditions of Aboriginal people in Canada” (25 October 2017) online:  < https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/ > [https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016021/98-200-x2016021-eng.cfm]

[2] Ibid.

Understanding Workplace Sexual Harassment

Sara WrightBy Sara Wright

During my December interview for the internship, then-Acting Director, Vida Nelson, told me about the $2.6 million of federal funding the Commission received to improve education and awareness on workplace sexual harassment.[1] It was an exciting announcement for the Commission and one that would have a meaningful impact for creating safer workplace environments for Yukoners. Thus, it was a no-brainer for me when I was asked if I wanted to focus on more general employment-related human rights matters or workplace sexual harassment. I chose the latter. My choice was not only because of what Vida told me about the federal funding; it was influenced by the experiences I, and so many of my friends, have had, and by the novelty of addressing the field from a legal perspective. Sexual harassment is an issue that has only recently been gaining widespread attention. When I started my undergraduate schooling, it was barely addressed in orientation. Now, it is a common part of the onboarding of students to their universities. Workplaces are finding themselves to be in great need of creating or updating their policies. This was an opportunity to be involved in assisting the facilitation of these improvements.

While, unfortunately, I was unable to actually go to the Yukon to assist in educational presentations and the development of materials in their offices, I was still able to assist by doing legal research on related matters. It gave me some insight into how new the matter is to human rights commissions. Most of the high-paying awards were given in the last 5 years, and there were almost no high awards given over a decade ago. Decisions made in provinces such as British Columbia refer back to decisions made in Ontario because there simply is so little Canadian precedent.

Reviewing policies was also part of my legal research. This was something I was particularly interested in because of my own personal experiences. I remember when I was casually speaking to someone at the Sexual Violence Response office of my undergraduate institution a month before graduating and only then learned that sexual harassment was defined by the recipient of the harassment. It matters how the recipient of the harassment feels, not the intentions of the harasser. As someone who sat through multiple trainings a year regarding sexual harassment, I was stunned that I did not know this. I was also surprised by how that aspect of the definition is sometimes left out of policies.

Though my internship has concluded, I am looking forward to seeing how the Commission moves forward with their five-year project to address workplace sexual harassment awareness in the Yukon.[2] It is sure to be a challenging time, considering how little data there has been for the Yukon specifically in this matter. However, the development of tools and training by the Commission is certain to improve employers’ understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment and hopefully keep perpetuating this positive trend of expanding the understanding behind what constitutes sexual harassment and how to better prevent it from occurring.

[1] Department of Justice Canada, News Release, “Government of Canada supports a territory-wide initiative to address workplace sexual harassment in the Yukon” (10 December 2010), online: Department of Justice Canada <www.canada.ca/en/department-justice/news/2019/12/government-of-canada-supports-a-territory-wide-initiative-to-address-workplace-sexual-harassment-in-the-yukon.html>.

[2] Yukon Human Rights Commission, News Release, “Towards a Yukon Without Workplace Sexual Harassment (12 August 2020), online: Yukon Human Rights Commission <yukonhumanrights.ca/news.shtml>.

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